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Aging, Global Health, Medical Education, Patient Care, SMS Unplugged

After the rain: Experiencing illness as a medical student and granddaughter

After the rain: Experiencing illness as a medical student and granddaughter

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

rainy groundIn India, when the first heavy droplets of rain meet dry earth it releases a particular kind of smell: a dampness arising from sizzling soil that in Bengal we call shnoda gondho. It is raining on the second day we go to visit my grandfather in the hospital.

He has been readmitted to the hospital, after spending a week recovering at home from a hospitalization for rib fractures and bleeding into his lungs. The irony of his hospitalization is not lost on his family: that a renowned doctor, one of the first cancer surgeons in the city of Kolkata and one who spearheaded oncological care in this region, is now gowned and sitting in a hospital bed. This happens frequently, of course, for doctors are not immune to being patients, even if we would like to think so. The problem is that we are little prepared for the unstructured, unscripted nature of experiencing illness rather than treating it.

Certainly for my grandfather, a man who even recently traveled to multiple hospitals each day to supervise surgeries and see patients in clinic, being confined to bed for respiratory treatments and being unable to walk without support feels equivalent to being bound up, tied down, and chained to the hospital. This is the way illness imprisons. For his family, used to seeking his wise medical advice on various things from pesky coughs to unremitting cancers, we are unprepared to now help make decisions for him.

We never stop being medical students, and later we never stop being doctors, whether in relationships with family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers in emergency situations

Perhaps this reflection is too personal for a forum created for sharing medical school experiences. But I suppose my realization is that medical school is not a place but rather a privilege we hold. We never stop being medical students, and later we never stop being doctors, whether in relationships with family members, friends, acquaintances while traveling, or strangers in emergency situations.

But, as I spend these three weeks with my grandfather and my family in Kolkata, I find that it is important to play both roles: that of medical student, the one who can help translate the staccato of medical jargon into fluid lines, and that of loved one, the one who listens not via an earpiece through the taut drum of a stethoscope but through bare ears and naked eyes, the one who listens for and is moved by the cries of pain, or suffering, or confusion, or desperation, of the ones they love.

In many ways the loved one is the harder role to play, for it is the role with no lines. No chest x-rays to evaluate in the morning. No medications to re-dose for a rising creatinine. No growing charts of oxygen saturation, or heart rate, or urine output. As someone who has recently grown used to doing these things on the medicine wards of Stanford Hospital, I now acculturate to a more improvisational kind of care. Placing a soothing hand on an aching back. Sitting at someone’s bedside while he nods in and out of sleep. Holding down an arm so that it doesn’t tremble like the string on a harp. In Indian hospitals, the family must often arrange to bring the medications that the doctors have prescribed and may often visit the hospital multiple times a day to bring food. We mix rice with soft, curried vegetables or boiled eggs and offer them to our loved ones, hoping to find through these labors some connection, some solace.

As family members we grasp for metaphors. In India, these metaphors of illness are often built around ideas of hot or cold, of water or wind. Perhaps that is why I find it so poignant that it rained today, the dense, gray clouds releasing their water just as the water from the pleural effusion in my dadu’s lungs was drained.

I hope that one day soon, when this rain had cleared, my grandfather will write his own words as he has planned to do. And then he can tell you his story, not I.

Amrapali Maitra is a fifth-year MD/PhD student working towards a PhD in Anthropology. She is interested in the illness experience, the cultural and social basis of health, and practices of care.   Amrapali grew up in New Zealand and Texas, and she studied history and literature as an undergraduate at Harvard. She is a 2013 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.  

Photo by Jason Devaun

Global Health, Pediatrics, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

stop rape signI’ve written previously about No Means No Worldwide, a non-profit that has partnered with several Stanford researchers to document the success of their self-defense programs for preventing rapes of girls in Nairobi, Kenya. Over the last week, the program has garnered some wonderful news coverage of its complementary program to educate boys about their responsibility for stopping rape, including a Reuters story that describes how some schoolboys halted the sexual assault of a young girl:

Having been trained to defend girls against sexual assault, the boy called other young men to help him confront the man and rescue the child.

“It would have been fatal,” said Collins Omondi, who taught the boy as part of a program to stamp out violence against women and girls in Nairobi slums. “If this man would have assaulted this kid, he would have thrown her inside the river.”

The Reuters story also mentions some very heartening news: Thanks to funding from the British government, all of Nairobi’s 130,000 secondary school students will undergo the six-week No Means No Worldwide programs for girls and boys by the end of 2017.

Upworthy has also covered the programs’ success. From their story:

In many parts of the world, assault prevention starts and ends with what women can do to avoid putting themselves in “high-risk” situations. These are not effective.

Researchers used Kenya’s scenario to test the two methods. One group of women received the No Means No [empowerment and self-defense] training while the other took a life-skills class. Girls who received the No Means No training saw a nearly 40% decrease in rapes in the year following the program. Girls who took the life-skills offering were raped at the same rate.

Not only is teaching women how to avoid “high-risk” situations ineffective, but it shifts the blame to the victim for being raped instead of putting it on the rapist for actually committing the crime.

Committing a crime is a choice, and the No Means No program empowers young boys to choose not to commit that crime.

Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls and Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya
Photo by Steve McClaughin

Events, Global Health, Health Disparities, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Countdown to Childx: Global health expert Gary Darmstadt on improving newborn survival

Countdown to Childx: Global health expert Gary Darmstadt on improving newborn survival

newborn-IndiaEach year, around the world, almost 3 million babies die in the first month of life. But it doesn’t have to be that way: For many newborns, simple changes in their care could make the difference between life and death.

I spoke about this conundrum recently with global health expert Gary Darmstadt, MD, who will be among the panelists at this week’s Childx conference at Stanford. Darmstadt, who recently arrived at Stanford from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has focused much of his career on improving newborn health in developing countries. The key, he says, is engaging community members as full partners in creating the solutions for how to care for newborns. Excerpts of our conversation appear below.

Registration for the Childx conference is still open, and those who can’t attend in person can watch the conference’s live stream at the Childx website.

Preterm birth has just passed pneumonia as the No.1 cause of death, worldwide, for children under age 5, and yet many deaths from prematurity could be prevented with simple, low-tech interventions. What needs to change?

We’ve known since the late 1970s that kangaroo mother care, in which the mother keeps the infant on her chest next to her skin, is very effective. But the rate of adoption has been very poor, about 5 percent globally in 35 years.

It was originally conceived as a substitute for an incubator: By holding babies skin-to-skin you provide a constant source of warmth. What I think happened was that, by making kangaroo mother care a medical intervention rather than a natural behavior, we’ve stigmatized it. Mothers may think, “If I was a rich person, my baby would be in an incubator. Being a provider of kangaroo mother care tells me something about me and my baby: We’re second class.”

We need to communicate that kangaroo mother care is for every baby, everywhere. It’s not just something that poor people get if there aren’t enough incubators. Yes, there are situations where an incubator is helpful, but in many ways kangaroo mother care is superior. An incubator can’t provide a mother’s heartbeat or the feel of her breathing, her voice and her touch. It can’t provide breast milk. It’s not something you form a bond with that lasts for a lifetime. People have picked up the message that the medical device is superior, and they may feel like “I’m an inferior version of a medical device” rather than understanding that the medical device is, for many babies, an inferior attempt to produce what the mother or other family members can provide.

What are some key examples from your research of how social and environmental approaches can help improve infants’ health and survival?

I’m part of a team that worked closely with communities in India to understand how they perceive newborns’ needs and their issues in dealing with them. From there, we developed a simple package of preventive care. It consisted of things like holding babies skin-to-skin, breastfeeding, keeping infants warm, and basic hygiene. Once it was implemented, we saw a 50 percent reduction in neonatal mortality over a 16 month period.

We found, for example, that these communities had no real concept that hypothermia was bad for babies. They had a term for fever and understood that fever was a danger signal, but didn’t have a word that brought the connotation of harm or danger together with cold for babies. When we realized that, the community ended up coming up with a term – they called hypothermia “cold fever.” It created a whole new dialogue around hypothermia, and new openness to trying things that might be helpful to your baby, particularly skin-to-skin care.

What we really sought to do was to bring the science into language that was simple and related to their everyday experience. So the messaging became, “In the same way that when you bathe in the river, when you come out, you feel cold and wrap yourself in a sari, when a baby is born, it’s wet and feels cold, and we need to wrap up the baby for the baby’s protection.” Without understanding the social construct, the environment, we couldn’t come up with those simple messages that would become part of the social fabric.

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Global Health, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Study explores how cultural differences can shape the way we respond to suffering

Study explores how cultural differences can shape the way we respond to suffering

8909380232_a647e15c23_zOur emotions may be a deeply personal experience, but the way we perceive and express our feelings may not be as unique – or random – as we think. According to recent research, culture influences the way some Americans and Germans convey their mood. If this is universally true, it could mean that people of the same culture tend to express their feelings in similar ways.

As this Stanford Report story explains, researchers Jeanne Tsai, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, and Birgit Koopmann-Holm, PhD, a German citizen who earned her doctorate in Tsai’s lab, noticed that Americans of European decent and Germans seemed to differ in the way they express feelings of sympathy:

Americans tend to emphasize the positive when faced with tragedy or life-threatening situations. American culture arguably considers negativity, complaining and pessimism as somewhat “sinful,” [Tsai] added.

Unlike when Americans talk about illness, Germans primarily focus on the negative, Tsai and Koopmann-Holm wrote. For example, the “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Drive”) literary and musical movement in 18th-century Germany went beyond merely accepting negative emotions to actually glorifying them.

This seemingly simple observation could have important societal implications, the researchers explain: Studies show that empathy affects our willingness to help someone who is suffering. But, as noted in the article, “until now, Tsai said, no studies have specifically examined how culture shapes ‘different ways in which sympathy, compassion or other feelings of concern for another’s suffering might be expressed.'”

In their study (subscription required, pdf here), published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers conducted four separate experiments on 525 undergraduate students in the U.S. and Germany to see if Americans accentuate the positive more than Germans do when expressing their condolences. The students were asked how they would feel in a variety of hypothetical situations (such as a scenario where a friend lost a loved one), what feelings they would want to avoid and how they would select and rate sympathy cards.
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Evolution, Global Health, In the News, Microbiology, Nutrition, Research

A key bacteria from hunter gatherers’ guts is missing in industrial societies, study shows

392924423_860dafa0a4_oTrends like the paleo diet and probiotic supplements attest to the popular idea that in industrial societies, our digestion has taken a turn for the worse. The scientific community is gathering evidence on how the overuse of antibiotics affects our microbiome, and on what might be causing the increasing incidence gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders like Crohn’s disease and colitis. Scientists are now one step closer to knowing exactly what has changed since the majority of humans were hunter-gatherers.

Yesterday, a paper published in Nature Communications found that an entire genus of bacteria has gone missing from industrialized guts. Treponema are common in all hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied, as well as in non-human primates and other mammals. Treponema have primarily been known as pathogens responsible for diseases like syphilis, but the numerous strains found in the study are non-pathenogenic and closely resemble carbohydrate-digesting bacteria in pigs, whose digestive system is notably similar to that of humans. The genus is undetectable in humans from urban-industrial societies.

The study, led by anthropologists from the University of Oklahoma and the Universidad Científica del Sur in Peru, used genomic reconstruction to compare microbes in stool samples from two groups in Peru, one of hunter-gatherers and one of traditional farmers, with samples from people in Oklahoma. Each group comprised around 25 people. This is the first comprehensive study of the full-spectrum of microbial diversity in the guts of a group of hunter-gatherers – in this case, the Amazonian Matses people.

The researchers also sought to understand how diet affects gut health: The hunter-gatherers ate game and wild tubers, the traditional farmers ate potatoes and domestic mammals, and the Oklahomans ate primarily processed, canned, and pre-packaged food, with some additional meat and cheese.

Science published a news report discussing the findings, in which co-author Christina Warinner, PhD, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, is quoted as saying:

Suddenly a picture is emerging that Treponema was part of core ancestral biome. What’s really striking is it is absolutely absent, not detectable in industrialized human populations… What’s starting to come into focus is that having a diverse gut microbiome is critical to maintaining versatility and resiliency in the gut. Once you start to lose the diversity, it may be a risk factor of inflammation and other problems.

Further research is needed to answer the next question: Is there a direct link between the absence of Treponema and the digestive health and prevalence of certain diseases (like colitis and Crohn’s) in industrialized humans? If so, this could be a valuable key to increasing our digestive health. It would also indicate that imitating a paleo diet is not enough to achieve a real “paleo gut.”

Previously: Drugs for bugs: industry seeks small molecules to target, tweak, and tune-up our gut microbes, Tiny hitchhikers, big impact: studying the microbiome to learn about disease, Civilization and its dietary (dis)contents: Do modern diets starve our gut-microbial community?, Stanford team awarded NIH Human Microbiome Project grant, and Contemplating how our human microbiome influences personal health
Photo by AJC1

Global Health, Haiti, Infectious Disease, Public Health, Technology

A sanitation solution: Stanford students introduce dry toilets in Haiti

A sanitation solution: Stanford students introduce dry toilets in Haiti

sanitation-toilet-movedIn the United States, we often take for granted the relationship between health and sanitation. Not so in Haiti, where some people dispose of their feces in plastic bags they throw into waterways. As a result, waterborne diseases like cholera are common.

But what’s to be done? Flush toilets guzzle gallons of water and depend on an entire sewage system — an unfeasible option in many developing nations. To fill the gap, a pair of Stanford civil and environmental engineering graduate students have developed a program called re.source, which provides dry household toilets, and empties them for about $5 a month.

From a recent Stanford News story:

Unlike most sanitation solutions that only address one part of a dysfunctional supply chain, container-based sanitation models, such as the re.source service, tackle the whole sanitation chain. The re.source toilets separate solid and liquid waste into sealable containers, and dispense a cover material made of crushed peanut shells and sugarcane fibers that eliminates odors and insect infestations. The solid waste is regularly removed by a service, which takes it to a disposal or processing site to be converted to compost and sold to agricultural businesses.

The re.source students — Kory Russel and Sebastien Tilmans — work under the guidance of Jenna Davis, PhD, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. They started small, with a free pilot phase in 130 households in a Haitian slum, but the service has expanded to include 300 additional households with plans to introduce a service in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The project is part of a larger Stanford focus on water issues ranging from safe drinking water to environmental concerns.

Previously: Waste not, want not, say global sanitation innovators, Stanford pump project makes clean water no longer a pipe dream and Award-winning Stanford documentary to air on PBS tonight
Photo by Rob Jordan

Global Health, In the News, Mental Health, Public Health, Research

Study links air pollution with anxiety; calls it a “leading global health concern”

Study links air pollution with anxiety;  calls it a "leading global health concern"

3280739522_c1f8001000_zI often find that natural spaces and fresh air have a calming, balancing effect, and judging by the cultural association between relaxation and the outdoors, I’m not alone. Now some new research backs up the connection. Yesterday, the British Medical Journal published an article linking air pollution with anxiety, as well as an editorial on air pollution’s health effects and another study elaborating on a previously-noted connection between pollution and stroke.

The anxiety study, conducted by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University, showed a significant connection between exposure to fine particulate pollution and symptoms of anxiety for more than 70,000 older women (mean age of 70 years) in the contiguous United States. Bigger particles appeared to have no effects, interestingly, nor did living close to a major road. The connection was present over a variety of time periods from one month to fifteen years, but was stronger in the short term. This evidence shows a clear need for studies to be done in other demographic groups, and to elaborate on the biological plausibility of the connection.

The stroke article, meanwhile, is a meta-analysis of 103 studies conducted in 28 countries and including 6.2 million events. Researchers found that both gaseous and particulate air pollution had a “marked and close temporal association” with strokes resulting in hospital admissions or death.

As stated in the editorial, particulate air pollution has already been shown to be a contributing factor in a variety of serious health conditions, including a well-supported link to cardiopulmonary diseases, but also diabetes, low birth weight, and pre-term birth. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that one of every eight deaths is caused by air pollution. The body of research on the topic suggests that pollution may initiate systemic inflammation, thereby affecting multiple organ systems.

With such a broad range of detrimental effects, and because it affects such a significant percentage of the population, air pollution is becoming a top public health concern. As the University of British Columbia’s Michael Brauer, ScD, wrote in the editorial:

The findings of these two studies support a sharper focus on air pollution as a leading global health concern… One of the unique features of air pollution as a risk factor for disease is that exposure to air pollution is almost universal. While this is a primary reason for the large disease burden attributable to outdoor air pollution, it also follows that even modest reductions in pollution could have widespread benefits throughout populations. The two linked papers in this issue confirm the urgent need to manage air pollution globally as a cause of ill health and offer the promise that reducing pollution could be a cost effective way to reduce the large burden of disease from both stroke and poor mental health.

Photo by Billy Wilson

Cancer, Global Health, Patient Care, Stanford News

New global cancer map aims to improve care in developing countries

New global cancer map aims to improve care in developing countries

cancer map2

Most people don’t associate cancer with the developing world, yet 60 percent of new cancer cases and 70 percent of cancer deaths occur in less developed parts of the world, according to the World Health Organization. Now, the nonprofit Global Oncology, Inc. has launched a Global Cancer Project Map, a first-of-its-kind resource that will connect cancer experts around the world in an effort to advance cancer research and care in low-resource areas.

The interactive map includes more than 800 projects on six continents. With a few simple clicks, users can search for cancer experts and research projects and then contact the investigators and program managers. The goal is to spur collaboration among people in the field and enable experts to share their collective knowledge.

“Before it was difficult or often impossible to find information about cancer projects or experts, especially in limited-resource settings,” said Ami S. Bhatt, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford and co-founder of Global Oncology, Inc. “The map now makes it possible to connect colleagues in the global cancer community with a maximum of six clicks of a computer mouse.”

Bhatt, who directs global oncology for Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, and GO co-founder Franklin Huang, MD, PhD, have been working with the National Cancer Institute on ways to bring multidisciplinary teams together to solve complex problems in cancer. While there are many dedicated scientists and caregivers doing innovative work in cancer in the developing world, there’s been no single place where they could share knowledge or reference the work of their colleagues, she said. The cancer map is a first step in this process.

“We have the ambitious goal of providing access to every cancer research, care and outreach program in the world through the map,” said Huang, who is an instructor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A collaboration with the NCI, the map was developed by GO volunteers, who are scientists, policymakers, public health experts, lawyers and other highly skilled individuals. It covers a wide range of projects, from prevention and screening to clinical programs and palliative care. For instance, it includes a project in Turkey to improve diagnostic accuracy of mammograms to detect breast cancer; development of an early screening test for gastric cancer in Mexico; and use of supplements to prevent arsenic-induced skin cancer in Bangladesh.

“The map is an important and innovative step forward in our effort to reduce health disparities and strengthen human capital in underserved areas of the world,” said Michele Barry, MD, director of Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health. “With cancer rates rapidly increasing in low-resource settings, the map creates a place where the global cancer community can share and access information that is critical to providing better treatment and care.”

Bhatt and Huang unveiled the new map today at the Symposium on Global Cancer Research, being held in Boston. The symposium is co-sponsored by the NCI, the Consortium of Universities for Global Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Image from Global Oncology, Inc.

Ask Stanford Med, Global Health, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: Our hope is to “inspire others and create a ripple effect” in India

Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: Our hope is to "inspire others and create a ripple effect" in India

This post is part of the Biodesign’s Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

shutterstock_258773231Rajiv Doshi, MD, is the executive director (U.S.) of the Stanford-India Biodesign Program and was part of the Stanford team that initially flew to India in 2007 to propose the program to the Government of India. He has commercialized devices to treat sleep apnea and snoring and later served on boards of multiple medical device companies. In 2012 he was named by Forbes India as one of the top 18 Indian scientists who are changing the world.

Doshi answered questions about the early days of the Stanford-India Biodesign program and the hurdles entrepreneurs face in India.

Why did you want to start the Stanford-India Biodesign program?

Starting the program was both an opportunity and an obligation. My belief was that this was going to be a difficult challenge spanning perhaps a decade. We were working with a partner [the Indian government] where we didn’t know the people very well and we didn’t know many of their systems. We had never assembled such an international collaboration of this scale. If we failed then at least we tried and did our best. If we were successful then we would have helped a lot of people. I felt that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have an impact of this scale.

What were some of the hurdles the early fellows faced when they tried to develop technologies in India?

Probably the number one problem they face in India is that there is really little mentorship as we know it here. Few people in India have successfully developed a medical device from scratch so it is really hard to find mentors who are already domain experts in medical technology. The next issue is raising capital. There is very little early stage venture capital focused on medical technology in India.

Then there are challenges with research and development. Imagine you’re creating a difficult-to-make medical device that has small, complicated parts. Odds are the suppliers aren’t available for all these parts in India. Then there’s manufacturing and supply chain issues. Let’s say the entrepreneurs are able to develop a product, then they may struggle to find an in-country manufacturer to make this product. In many cases, in-country manufacturing capabilities just aren’t at the same level as you would see here or in Singapore, Germany or other locations. So you start stacking these challenges together and you realize that they are pretty serious.

Does it get easier once they’ve developed the device?

No, I think the greatest challenges are related to commercialization – after development has been completed. Let’s imagine you created a great product, you’ve figured out all these issues. Your next challenge is then to market your product and convince healthcare providers in India to start using your product. This takes time and money to support your marketing and sales efforts. Additionally, many of the providers may not be as trained as their US or UK counterparts and may be less likely to adopt your product if it requires a certain level of training. Finally, there is the issue of who is going to pay for the product. In India, only about 25 percent of people have basic health insurance so any device in India needs to be quite low cost to be broadly used.

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Events, Global Health, Health Costs, Health Disparities, Health Policy, Stanford News

Global health expert: Economic growth provides opportunity to close the “global health gap”

Yamey talkStanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health hosted a recent seminar for Stanford students and faculty with global health-policy expert Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH. The discussion focused on the disparity in heath care between higher- and lower-income countries and how economic growth in lower-income countries could set the stage for big improvements in global health.

During the talk, Yamey explained that millions of lives could be saved if economic gains in low- and lower-middle-income countries were invested in health care. “I can’t think of any other investment on the planet that could improve human welfare in such a huge way,” Yamey told the audience.

As described in an online story on the event, Yamey cited Rwanda – a country that rebuilt its economy and healthcare after the 1994 genocide – as an example of how this scenario could play out elsewhere:

Over the past decade, Rwanda has experienced significant drops in mortality associated with HIV, malaria and maternal death, and achieved the greatest drop in child mortality rates in recorded history. While scholars acknowledge several factors that contributed to such an extraordinary rebound, government spending on public health, the smart use of aid, and economic growth were all integral to the equation.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to bring down maternal, newborn and infectious disease deaths to universally low levels everywhere,” Yamey said. “But for that to happen, we need an aggressive scale up of existing tools and interventions, investment in new tools and a build-up of delivery systems.”

Previously: Minimum wage: More than an economic principle, a driver of healthHealth care in Haiti: “At risk of regressing”Child-mortality gap narrows in developing countries and Stanford general surgeon discusses the importance of surgery in global health care
Photo, of Gavin Yamey (left) and moderator Paul Costello, courtesy of the Center for Innovation in Global Health

Stanford Medicine Resources: